Fifteen minutes before the second televised Presidential debate, on the night of Friday, Oct. 8, the stoic voice of anchor Brit Hume came over the Fox News Channel’s control-room intercom.
“Do you know about this Mark Halperin memo?” he asked the room full of producers, who were hunched over the dials and standing before a tall bank of flickering TV screens. “Can we talk about it on the air? It’s on Drudge. It’s all over Drudge.”
In a leaked memo, Mr. Halperin, the ABC News political director, had suggested that the network should be more critical of President Bush than Senator John Kerry, a moment of potential bias casting suspicion on the debate moderator, ABC News’ Charlie Gibson. It seemed like another priceless chance to rap the knuckles of the liberal media. A producer in the control room did a mocking, throaty impression of an ABC spokesman: ABC News always adheres to the strictest standards and blah blah blah blah ….
But standing by in “Spin Alley” in St. Louis, Mo., Carl Cameron, the chief political correspondent, didn’t like what he was hearing from headquarters.
“Not a good idea! Not a good idea!” Mr. Cameron yelped to the producers from inside an eight-inch monitor labeled “Remote 7.” “I’m the last person to do this.”
Indeed, the week before Mr. Cameron had come under scrutiny of his own for a fake news item he penned mocking Senator John Kerry—and accidentally posted on the Fox News Web site. Now, inside the Fox nerve center at 400 North Capitol Street, in Washington, D.C.—the de facto brain of Roger Ailes’ network, Rupert Murdoch’s crown jewel—the barrel-chested Fox machine was suffering a rare moment of self-doubt. All season, the TV media covering the 2004 election has had its coat-sleeves yanked suddenly and violently into the political machinery—and into the news—by blogging zealots, with Fox News attacked by factions on the left, and Dan Rather and CBS News by factions on the right (including, incidentally, Fox News). Now it was ABC’s turn, and Mr. Cameron wasn’t so sure he had the street cred to relay the facts.
Marty Ryan, the white-haired executive producer of Fox News’ election coverage, told Mr. Hume what he was hearing from Remote 7: “Carl’s view is he may be a bad person to ask about something like this, given recent events,” he said.
“Let me talk to him,” said Mr. Hume.
Mr. Ryan opened the connection.
“Hi, Brit,” said Mr. Cameron, sad-eyed and weary.
“Hi, Carl,” said Mr. Hume. “Suppose I came to you and said, ‘Carl, um, my e-mail is buzzing, there’s a controversy I’m hearing out there about a memo from ABC News political director, uh, that’s been received by some of the staff, what do you know about this, Carl?’ And then what you can say is, you know, ‘Yes, we know that at least one ABC News staffer or something has received the document. It’s a memo that, you know’—how would you describe it if I called on you?”
“I would read a line from it,” said Mr. Cameron, “which says, ‘We have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn’t mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides ‘equally’ accountable when the facts don’t warrant that.’”
” Equally accountable,” repeated Mr. Hume, honing in on the very headline blaring in a 72-point font on the right-wing Drudge Report. “Then it goes on to say what?”
Mr. Cameron kept reading the memo while political supporters in St. Louis, assuming he was on air, flashed “Bush-Cheney ’04″ placards behind his head. Next, Chris Wallace, the Fox News Sunday anchor, on Remote 8, broke in on the conversation.
“Hey Brit, can you hear me? What is this that I’m hearing?” he asked.
“Oh, you’ll love it,” said Mr. Hume, before the conversation was cut off by the producers.
A minute later, Thom Bird, a senior executive producer wearing a satin American-flag tie, could be heard repeating Mr. Cameron’s worries about reporting the ABC memo: “He says he doesn’t want to do it,” said Mr. Bird. “He says he thinks it’s a really bad idea.”
Mr. Cameron explained over the intercom: “Someone in this filing center asked me for a comment about my own problem.”
It was five minutes before the official debate time of 9:01:30 p.m., and Mr. Hume had reached a decision: Mr. Cameron’s neuroses be damned, they were going to air the ABC memo. Sitting in the back row of the control room, Mr. Ryan and Mr. Bird looked like Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock at the helm of the Murdochian Enterprise, ready to navigate 7.1 million viewers through the Fox dimension of televised history.
With 20 seconds to go, Mr. Bird reminded everyone again of the trajectory: “Chris is first,” he said. “Then go back to Brit, Brit will toss to Jim, Jim will go back to Brit, and Brit will toss to Carl. Ten seconds! Nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two—roll 43 track!”
The deafening Fox News theme music swooshed and the martial drums rolled.
“Stand by, Brit,” said Mr. Bird.
Mr. Wallace did the introduction, threw to correspondent Jim Engle, who threw to Mr. Hume, who lowered his voice and started in on the ABC memo.
“The last thing ABC News may have needed tonight,” said Mr. Hume, the Fox News logo turning in the bottom left-hand corner, “was a political controversy regarding its coverage.”
Mr. Cameron straightened his back in Remote 7.
“But it seems that that is just what ABC News has,’ Mr. Hume continued. “A memorandum from his political director appears to have surfaced. Carl Cameron is aware of it. Carl, what can you tell us about this ABC News memo?”
Mr. Cameron lowered his chin in a hard-boiled game face and read excerpts from the memo.
“How confident can we be that this thing is the real McCoy?” asked Mr. Hume, the ghost of Dan Rather hovering in the room. “How confident can we be about it?”
Mr. Cameron said some ABC staffers had confirmed it, but he was awaiting further confirmation.
“Mark Halperin is an old friend of mine,” said Mr. Hume, grimly, like a character witness at a trial. “I’ve worked with him, he’s a good guy. We’ll wait to hear more about this.”
Mr. Hume, a onetime ABC News political reporter, called ABC News’ Mr. Gibson “an old friend of mine.”
ABC News was a running theme that night for Mr. Hume and Mr. Wallace—another former ABC News man, who could be heard saying of Mr. Gibson, off-air, “He’s a good man, a very nice man. Nice man.”
Before show time, the director had fiddled with the test prompter, showing Mr. Gibson in both windows of a split screen. “Looks like Charlie Gibson is debating himself right now,” joked Mr. Bird.
But the split screen, so powerful a tool in the first debate, capturing President Bush’s crabby demeanor, was not to appear during the second debate—at least not on Fox. As it happens, ABC News was the only network to run with the split-screen effect. While the debate was under way, Mr. Bird eyed the competing networks and noticed ABC had a camera angle Fox didn’t have.
“Look at ABC!” he said. “They’re getting other feeds that we’re not getting. How did they get that?”
“Goddammit!” yelled Mr. Ryan.
“Can Wallace’s camera get it?” said Mr. Bird.
“Can you get me Kerry, Wallace-cam?” said Mr. Ryan into the intercom.
“Unfortunately,” Mr. Bird later explained, Fox News’ unilateral camera, which would have made a split screen possible, “didn’t have a clear shot of the candidate on the stage. It had a clear shot of Kerry on the side, but it looked bad. ABC had the only position that allowed them to get a split screen.
“If we had done it,” he continued, “it would have been wrong and confused the viewers. So we sat back and watched the pool do it. And that’s frustrating.”
That night, NBC News had managed the camera pool—the generic five-cam production farmed out to all of the networks—and the isolated shots of the candidates had been blocked whenever they stepped up to the markers taped on the red carpet. As a result, Fox was forced for much of the night to rely on the pool cut of the event. Afterward, Mr. Bird gave the production a grade B.
“The fact that we didn’t have the iso’s as anticipated set us back a little bit,” he said.
At 9:54 p.m., when Mr. Kerry was asked to look into that same camera and pledge that he wouldn’t raise taxes on those making less than $200,000 a year, Mr. Ryan said, “Good thing that camera was on.”
But 15 minutes later, the shot of Mr. Kerry went on the blink, then disappeared altogether.
“Rem 11 is gone!” yelled Mr. Bird. “Rem 11 just disappeared!”
“Here’s an idea,” said Mr. Ryan, testily. “Don’t take it.”
Ten minutes later, after a faulty downlink was repaired, the shot came back.
Meanwhile, the machine rolled on: A producer typed away, transcribing moments in the debate for the editing room to pluck out for analysis afterward. In their respective monitors, the D.C. panel, Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes of the Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard, and Mort Kondracke, one of Fox News’ Beltway Boys, scribbled notes, smirked, rolled their eyes, laughed to each other. In Camera 1, Mr. Hume had his hands crossed in front of his mouth, watching gloomily.
“You’ve got to be firm and consistent,” said Mr. Bush on the screen.
At 10:30 p.m., Mr. Bush, in a longwinded filibuster, avoided listing three mistakes he’d made while President. Watching him, Mr. Kristol grinned in Camera 3. During Mr. Kerry’s rebuttal, Mr. Hume could be seen shaking his head.
In closing, Mr. Bush declared, “Freedom is on the march!”
At 10:37 p.m., Mr. Hume removed his glasses. Mr. Ryan announced that Mr. Gibson’s closer would last 40 seconds. Two minutes later, Mr. Hume, looked into the camera and said to the viewers, “The question is, of course, is whether anything about this debate is sufficient to change the race.”
And then something strange happened at Fox News. As Mr. Hume asked his panel to assess the performances of President Bush and Senator Kerry, they each backed away from Mr. Bush, criticizing his performance, wondering why the President hadn’t attacked Mr. Kerry’s record more forcefully and, just like that, handed the night to Mr. Kerry. Mr. Barnes, the most conservative among them, called it a draw.
“I think Kerry won this debate as he won the first debate,” said Mr. Kondracke. “I thought that Kerry was more aggressive, and the President was basically on the defense and didn’t have new arguments, didn’t have—wasn’t as facile as he should have been.”
Mr. Barnes added: “I hope some White House aide will tell the President that it’s the ‘Internet,’ not the ‘Internets.’”
To NYTV, sitting in that control room, it had not appeared at all that Mr. Bush had lost. It seemed like an unexpected editorial tack, not unlike MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and Hardball throwing the V.P. debate to Dick Cheney three nights before. Was Fox News hedging its bets, righting its footing, preparing for a possible Kerry Presidency, when a new and improved editorial agenda might be in the offing?
Mr. Ryan, of course, said the analysts on the panel just called it liked they saw it. “What they say, we let them speak their minds,” he said. “My view is they’re the best in the business, so we turn ’em loose and see what they have to say.” He said he didn’t feel any pressure to carefully steer the coverage based on election pressures.
“You just want to be very, very careful that you represent both points of view,” he said. “Is there more pressure? I don’t think so. You just want to make sure you get that right all the time.”
But giving Mr. Kerry a gold star for Friday night’s skirmish certainly didn’t come naturally. After Mr. Wallace interviewed the Republican spinmeister, he invited Senator Hillary Clinton, in a bright robin’s-egg pantsuit, to talk up Mr. Kerry’s performance. Mr. Wallace then asked about former President Bill Clinton’s health.
“I want to assure all Fox viewers that he’s on the mend,” said Senator Clinton, smiling slyly.
“We’re happy,” retorted Mr. Wallace.
Senator Clinton laughed hysterically: “I’m glad you’re happy!” she said.
When the post-debate show came back to the D.C. headquarters, Mr. Kristol said to Mr. Hume, with a crooked grin, “I’m so relieved that President Clinton’s on the mend.”
“I could tell,” said Mr. Hume. “There was a collective sigh of relief here.”
“Well,” said Mr. Kristol, “I want to assure Senator Clinton that I and Fox analysts and Fox viewers wish President Clinton good health and many years of happiness …. “
“It’s fair to say that in new terms the Clintons have never let us down, have they?” said Mr. Hume.
Inside the control room, everyone grinned.